cyber security

World on brink of new Cold War fought in cyber space, security experts warn

Online terrorists and bedroom “hacktivists” could become key players in a new Cold War fought in cyber space, according to security experts.

The prominence of cyber attacks has been rising in recent years thanks to a number of major incidents that have shown how damaging they can be.

North Korea was widely blamed for the Wannacry attack that hit the NHS in 2017, severely impacting the service’s ability to handle patients amid warnings it could “cause fatalities”. 

This followed soon after the US elections in 2016 that saw Russian hackers target the Democrats in order to bolster Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Professor Sadie Creese, a cyber-security expert from Oxford University, said tensions between countries was rising due to a conflict of ideas around sovereignty, human rights and the control of information.

“By Cold War if we are talking about a long drawn-out difference of opinion in terms of philosophy that doesn’t necessarily result in armed conflict but conflict of ideas, a constant tension, that leads to all sorts of soft power being deployed, then I can see it emerging but perhaps not in the obvious East/West of old,” she said.

“I suspect these will gather strength and as nations coalesce around them we may find ourselves in something similar because they do conflict with each other when you consider how to manage cyber space.

“We are not there yet, but I do see there is a potential. This is just beginning to evolve.

“Cyber space is so critical to our lives that this massive difference of philosophy and the way it will affect behaviours and everyone’s lives, I can see us coming into tension.

“We may find some of the old players of the Cold War coming into conflicting positions, but they are going to be surrounded by lots of other players.”

A cyber war has the potential to cause suffering similar to any bomb blast if important public utilities are attacked.

Dr Beyza Unal, an expert in nuclear and cyber policy at Chatham House, both agreed and disagreed with the idea of a new Cold War being fought in cyber space.

She told the Cheltenham Science Festival that rather than press the nuclear button, a similar impact could be achieved by attacking critical national infrastructure, such as energy, telecoms, nuclear and health.

“We are not in the Cold War yet,” she said, “but once we get out of ‘peacetime’ and there is a crisis and a conflict between the major nation states that has cyber-defensive and cyber-offensive ability, I think we will be looking at a situation where we are worse off than now.”

Prof Creese said the same cyber-warfare methods could be used in completely different ways.

“What we have seen in the last five or 10 years is a maturing of an eco-system where there are lots of people willing to play their part and sell their services,” she said.

“So you will find commercial organisations or individuals in their bedroom at home building parts of the weaponry and parts of that will be deployed in some ransomware attack emanating from one part of the world aimed at medium to large enterprises.

“But a similar weapon could be used in an entirely different way by a state-sponsored actor who desires some valuable intelligence or wants to mess with someone’s uranium enrichment programme.

“We have the rise of the hacktivist and terrorists who have found their voices in cyber space.”

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